COLUMN: BEING DISEMBEDDED

Updated February 02, 2020

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I spent a life-changing year in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 1990s — a visit I have written about a few times for Dawn. Thus, I have long been fascinated by other people — especially women — who have spent time amid other cultures, and then experienced mixed feelings on returning to their native countries. Lately I’ve been reading the work of two adventurous women journalists, a generation apart from each other: British Yvonne Ridley (born County Durham in 1958) and Dutch Bette Dam (b. Leeuwarden, 1979).

As well as writing for many of the best-known British newspapers, Yvonne Ridley has also done controversial work as a politician and peace activist. In her 2001 book In the Hands of the Taliban, Ridley detailed the 10 days she spent in Taliban captivity. She had been caught by the extremists while dressed in a burqa trying to get a scoop in Afghanistan soon after the American invasion.

Her book was written at top speed after her detention. As such, she sometimes reveals her complex and contradictory personality. Despite proud working-class roots and leftist politics (she would later take a prominent role in George Galloway’s Respect Party), she was working for the right-wing paper the Daily Express when she was captured. She had also sent her daughter Daisy to an elite boarding school in the Lake District. Ridley writes defensively about “[c]atty remarks from other women” about her parenting. One wonders, though, if some of these women may be sceptical less out of ‘santimommy’ than disappointment at her political hypocrisy.

Other signs of her identity confusion at this early stage of the 21st century are that she counts among her ex-lovers an Israeli, a colonel from the Palestine Liberation Organisation and a British policeman. (The peace activist-to-be herself also joined the United Kingdom’s Territorial Army for a time.) She writes with pleasure about binge-drinking and bacon sandwiches. A couple of years later, she would convert to Islam. I think of Walt Whitman’s lines from his poem ‘Song of Myself’: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Ridley contains multitudes for sure, and she makes a warm and compelling storyteller. But the West doesn’t want to hear her story, in journalism at least. She is unfairly seen as an apologist for the Taliban and Islam.

Ridley can be reductive about Afghans, asserting with an essentialism that recalls the British colonial ‘martial race’ theory, “Afghan men are born fighters ... Fighting is a national pastime and has gone on for centuries.” A feminist, she hints at a worrying saviour complex, for example generalising: “dressed as an Afghan woman, I was trapped in a world of silence.” But if at first Afghanistan “did nothing” for her, in the book’s final pages she is developing a more textured stance on this varied nation of plains and mountains; Pashtuns, Hazaras and Uzbeks; jingle trucks and the destruction of art; rugged barrenness and lush orchards. She is amazed to find herself “being treated with kindness and respect” by her captors. In turmoil during her incarceration, she recalls Christian tenets and says the Lord’s Prayer. But she also promises that, when she is freed, she will make a point of studying the Islamic faith. This is a pledge she makes good on once she returns to London. The rest, as they say, is history.

I thoroughly enjoyed Bette Dam’s A Man and a Motorcycle: How Hamid Karzai Came to Power (2014). Dam is a more consistent and self-reflexive traveller than Ridley. Early on, she muses: “For a moment it seemed odd that I, a Westerner, wanted to write ‘his’ [Karzai’s] story. Who was I to presume that I could comprehend this society?” Whereas Ridley is able to believe two contradictory things at once with utter certainty, Dam is alert to shades of grey. For instance, she avers: “Thus began the Battle of Chora, reported in the media as a ‘battle against the Taliban’, but in reality the distinction between friend and foe was completely blurred.”

Aged just 26, she went to Afghanistan for the first time in 2006. Five years after the US invasion, she found the country caught up in a complex power nexus, with many Western and local governments jockeying for power.

Dam looked on aghast as members of the Press corps ensconced themselves in those international bases which had sprung up like weeds all over the nation. According to Dam in her impassioned 2019 TED talk, most journalists were selling instead of telling the news. They were (and are) fervent believers in the commodity of the West’s story of a global war on terror. She argues, then, that mainstream media produce conflicts, instilling fear in the hearts of their reporters, soldiers and NGOs. They peddle in the binary of safety within the compound, while on the other side of the barbed wire lurks an irredeemably evil and unknowable Taliban and al Qaeda.

Dam’s fearless truth-seeking and contempt for established narratives is reflected in novels. In James Meek’s We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, a war reporter based in Afghanistan declares: “You stay in one country for more than a few months, you start to know so much about it that the editors aren’t sure what you’re talking about any more. ... You’ve moved too far from the readers.” Meanwhile in Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, a character observes that Afghanistan’s American occupiers “justify their invasion of Afghanistan with platitudes about freedom and liberating the Afghani [sic] people.” In her knowledge of Afghanistan, Dam has soared past most Western editors and readers, rejecting the usual pieties about saving Afghans. She left the compound (or echo chamber), was given unprecedented access to Karzai and his cronies, and made many Afghan friends.

Now Dam has written a biography of Karzai’s opponent, Mullah Omar. This book is sensational because Dam was the first to discover the whereabouts of the elusive Taliban leader before his death in 2013. Emma Graham-Harrison wrote a viral article for The Guardian in which she argued that Dam’s book “exposes an embarrassing failure of US intelligence.” Dam says the Americans’ historical blunder should not surprise us. As soon as she started asking about Mullah Omar on the street, Afghans had answers, but Western journalists were too embedded to be asking the right people or the right questions. Reading A Man and a Motorcycle has made me all the more eager that the Mullah Omar biography, written in Dutch, be translated into English immediately.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 2nd, 2020